The Akathist was originally a 6th-century hymn to Mary — in Greek — attributed to Romanos the Melodist. The word is from the Greek a- meaning “not” and -kathistos, meaning “seated.” So an akathistos or akathist is a hymn sung while “not seated,” that is, while standing.

But there are other akathists as well, addressed to “sacred” persons, liturgical events, and even to Mary as manifested in various icons.

Akathists are divided into thirteen poetic segments, each consisting of a kontakion (Slavic kondak) and an oikos (ikos in the Slavic form). I mention the terms because they appear frequently in Marian icon inscriptions. In the same context, you will also want to know the term troparion (Slavic tropar), which is a short hymn form. When you see a troparion on a Russian icon, it will usually be identified at its beginning with the word tropar, followed by the word glas (“voice”), meaning the tone in which it is sung. There are eight tones used in Eastern Orthodox liturgical singing. “Voice” or “tone” here really means mode, in the musical sense. A mode in Eastern Orthodox singing is a base note with the melody built around it, following a defined set of scale steps. For the base note, think of the “drone” pipe on bagpipes that continually plays the same note while the melody is built up around it. There is more to the eight-tone mode system, but that is all we need for our purposes.

Now personally, I find even this much about the kontakion, ikos, and troparion pretty boring, but it is very helpful when trying to read and identify icons, so students of iconography should know the minimal basics I have just given. More is not necessary unless you plan to study Byzantine or Slavic liturgical music.

Now to today’s very uncommon icon type:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

We see Mary standing at the century in a oval of light. Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and in her hands she holds out a cloth –her veil — very much as she does in another icon type called the Pokrov or “Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

Behind her is what appears to be a curved wall, with a turret at each end. At left is a group of nuns, and at right another group of females.

What does all this mean? It is explained by the inscription at top and bottom, identified by its first word as an ikos, and by the following number as “10.” It is Ikos 10 from the “original” akathist to Mary, called the “Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God.”

Икосъ 10.
Стена еси девамъ, Богородице Дево, и всемъ къ Тебе прибегающымъ: ибо небесе и земли Творецъ устрои Тя, Пречистая, вселься во утробе Твоей, и вся приглашати Тебе научивъ:
Радуйся, столпе девства:
радуйся, дверь спасенія.
Радуйся, начальнице мысленнаго назданія:
радуйся, подательнице Божественныя благости.
Радуйся, Ты бо обновила еси зачатыя студно:
радуйся, Ты бо наказала еси окраденныя умомъ.

You are a wall to virgins, O Virgin Mother of God, and to all who flee to you; for heaven and earth’s Maker prepared you, Most Pure One, dwelt in your womb, and taught all to call to you:
Rejoice, pillar of virginity:
Rejoice, gate of salvation!
Rejoice, leader of mental formation:
Rejoice, giver of divine good!
Rejoice, for you did renew those conceived in shame:
Rejoice, for you gave wisdom to those robbed of their reason.

There is more, but that is all the writer of the icon inscription had room for. There are slight variations in the text of the Akathist as found on this image, but that is to be expected when comparing Old Believer inscriptions with those used by the State Church, whose Bible translations and liturgical books vary slightly in translation from those of the Old Believers.

So, what we see in this icon type is Mary holding out her veil of protection, somewhat as in the Pokrov image, but instead of the other details of that type we have instead a wall behind her symbolizing Mary as “Wall to Virgins,” meaning the protector of virgins, and that accounts for the crowd of nuns at left and the crowd of maidens at right — the “virgins.” The sun and moon are added merely as decorative elements, but you will recall also the description of Mary as the “Apocalyptic Woman” standing on the moon and clothed with the sun — so there is a hint of that in their inclusion here.

This icon type, “You Are a Wall to Virgins” (Стена еси девамъ/Stena esi devam) is seldom found separately, but in icons representing the Akathist, and in other icons of Mary “с акафистом” (s akafistom) — that is, “with the Akathist,” it is included in the border scenes depicting the kontakia and oikoi (“houses”) of that hymn. In some examples Mary is shown without Christ Immanuel on her breast and without the veil in her hands.

Though the word стена (“stena”) means literally “wall,” those translating the Akathist often prefer the more florid “bulwark,” so for short one may call this icon type either literally the “Wall to Virgins” or more loosely the “Bulwark of Virgins,”


The history of Russia, like many political histories, has its dark moments and intrigues as “byzantine” as anything in Byzantium. One of the best-known involves the mysterious death of Dmitriy, the youngest son of the tsar known as Ivan Groznuiy, “Ivan the Terrible.”

Upon the death of Tsar Ivan, his son Feodor ascended the throne. But the real power was held by Boris Godunov, Feodor’s brother-in-law. Feodor was weak, sickly, and not mentally competent to be Tsar, though he was said to be very pious.

All of this meant that upon Feodor’s death, he being childless, the next Tsar would be Boris Godunov — except for the obstacle of the younger son of Ivan, Dmitriy, born in 1582.

In 1584 Boris Godunov had Dmitriy and his mother and her brothers packed off to the city of Uglich. In 1591 Dmitriy was dead of a stab wound at the age of eight, and his mother accused Boris Godunov of having sent men to assassinate her son. She was forced to enter a convent and become a nun.

All of this led to much turmoil and confusion.

Just what happened is still unknown. Some believe Boris Godunov did in fact have Dmitriy assassinated so that no son of Ivan could possibly block Godunov’s ascent to the throne. Other historians believe the story that Dmitriy was playing with a knife, and wounded himself during an epileptic seizure. Yet a third story, and one that contributed to a period of great political disturbance called the “Time of Troubles,” said that Dmitriy had managed to escape his assassins. This is the reason why imposters were put forth by Polish factions, claiming the right of such a “false Dmitriy.” to the throne.

Mysteries, assassinations, disappearances — it all sounds like 21st-century Russian politics.

In any case, for Russian Orthodoxy, Dmitriy became a martyred saint.

Here is an icon painted in the Western manner used by the State Church in later years:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

At left is the “Good-believing Prince Roman [of Uglich]”. Roman was a 13th-century prince who ruled Uglich and was said to be both pious and devoted to the welfare of the people.

“The Holy Good-believing Tsarevich Dmitriy” stands at right, with the cross of martyrdom in his right hand and the knife that was the instrument of his death in his left. He is also called Dmitriy of Uglich

So in this icon, we have two princely saints associated with the city of Uglich. In the clouds above, Christ, holding the Gospels, looks down upon them.


The 13th century was a very difficult time for the principalities of Kievan Rus’ due to the Mongol invasion, when villages and towns were burned and looted and large numbers of people killed. The princes of that time were thus put in the position of either trying to appease the Tatars or of fighting against them. The land went under Tatar control for over two centuries, with the principalities becoming vassal states, except for Novgorod and Pskov in the northwest, which remained independent.


Today we will take a look at a very pleasant Russian icon (from a private collection) depicting royal saints of this period:

(Courtesy of Hans Plasse)

(Courtesy of Hans Plasse)

At left are the images “святого благоверного князя Феодора Смоленского (Черного) и его чад Давида и Константина” — “of the holy good-believing prince Feodor of Smolensk (‘The Black’) and his sons David and Konstantin.” “Good-believing,” or as it is often translated, “True-believing,” means that they were faithful to Eastern Orthodox belief:


Feodor Rostislavich was son of the prince of Smolensk. After his father’s death his brothers took the more choice regions, while he was left with Mozhaisk. Nonetheless, through marriage he became prince of Yaroslavl, and engaged in military campaigns for the Tatars of the “Golden Horde,” the western part of the Mongol Empire that had its head in the Sarai on the lower Volga River. He even married the daughter of the Khan Mengu-Timir. He had a previous son, Mikhail, under an earlier wife who died, but with his new wife he had two sons, David And Konstantin. In September of 1299 Feodor became ill, and asked to be made a monk so he might die as one. That is why in the icon he is wearing a monastic cowl (skhima), even though his life had been spent as a warrior and prince. He was succeeded by his son David, Konstantin having apparently died earlier.

At right are two other princes of Yaroslavl, Vasiliy (Basil) and Konstantin (Constantine, not the same as Konstantin son of Feodor):

Their father Vsevolod had been killed fighting the Tatars, who remained a problem first for the older brother Vasiliy, and after his death in 1249 for the younger brother Konstantin, who was killed while fighting the Tatars in 1257.

Royal figures in icons are recognized by their robes, which are usually heavily ornamented, often with damask designs and (as here) borders of white dots as pearls. Look also for the shuba, the fur-trimmed outer cloak-coat seen here on David, Konstantin, Vasiliy, and the other Konstantin. Sometimes royal saints wear metal crowns, but for Russian royalty, often the fur shapka like that worn by Prince David in this icon.

At the top of this example, the Old Testament Trinity is depicted in clouds.

The gold leafed background of this icon has been worn away over time (not uncommon), and with it the inscriptions, leaving the underlying gesso visible. But all the saints are nonetheless recognizable by their iconographic forms. The dark little holes visible in the halos of the saints show that they were once covered by nailed-on metal halos, added as a sign of veneration. That too is common in icons of the 17th century.


There is an uncommon but rather interesting icon type called Чистая Душа — Chistaya Dusha (or Dusha Chistaya), meaning “The Pure Soul.”  Here is an example from the 17th century:

We get a better idea of its nature if we look at the same subject in a different medium, this time in tempera on paper, from the end of the 18th-beginning of the 19th century (from the collection of the Russian State HIstorical Museum)

The typical inscription at right reads:

“The Pure Soul stands like a bride ornamented, having on her head a royal crown, the moon beneath her feet; a prayer goes forth from her mouth, rising like a flame to heaven.  The lion is bound with fasting, the dragon/serpent tamed with humility.  Tears put out the burning flames — the falling Devil cannot endure her goodness.”

The text on some examples specifies that the Devil falls to earth “like a cat.”

The white figure sitting gloomily in darkness (a dark cave) at right is, by contrast, identified as the Greshnaya Dusha, “The Sinful Soul.”

So the “Pure Soul” is subduing sinful passions through her  prayer, tears, humility, and fasting.  In accounts of Russian Orthodox spirituality, such as those of the monastics and startsy — the mystical ascetics — tears are seen as a very significant sign of piety and spiritual development, the “gift of tears.” In the image, the tears are poured from the vessel held by the “Pure Soul” onto the flames of passion and sinful impulses, extinguishing them.

Some examples, like the first image above, show Christ as “Lord Almighty” in heaven at the top of the image.  To his right is the Guardian Angel, and to his left stands the Pure Soul, offering her prayers.  So we see this this icon type also has undertones of the Deisis image in which Mary appears, crowned and dressed like a Queen, to the right of Jesus — the type called “The Queen Stands at your Right.”

“Pure Soul” images commonly include a depiction of the sun, which, together with the crowned woman standing on the moon, points us to its textual origin.  It is based upon the “Apocalyptic Woman” in the book of Revelation ( the Apocalypse), chapter 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…”

Obviously, however, the Pure Soul image deviates from that text, and it appears to have been derived from  depictions of Mary as the Apocalyptic Woman.  That accounts for it sometimes being classified as a “Mother of God” image.  The Apocalyptic Woman also represents the Church, thus the transition to understanding the figure crowned and standing on the moon as “The Pure Soul.”  This allegorical type seems to have entered Russian iconography in the latter half of the 16th century, and was later generally found among the Old Believers.


Here is an icon of the Zachatie, the “Meeting of Joachim and Anna the Righteous.” It is a noted scene from a kind of backstory to the Christmas account. You will not find Joachim or Anna mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They appear in the cycle of legends recorded in the Protoevangelion (Protoevangelium) of James, originally written in Greek, but later translated into Slavonic. It had a strong influence on the iconography of the parentage and birth of Mary and of Jesus.

According to the story, in biblical times Joachim was very wealthy, and like other “Israelites” he brought a significant offering to the Temple. There a fellow named Rubim saw him, and reproachfully remarked that Joachim was not worthy to bring an offering because he had no child.

That depressed Joachim so much that instead of going home to his wife Anna, he went off into the wilderness and lived in a tent there and fasted (went without food) for forty days and nights, spending all his time in prayer.

Now right away we know that we are in the land of “fairy tale,” because first there is the motif of the unhappy parents who have no child, a common fairy tale motif. And of course the ending is always that they somehow get an unusual child. Second, there is the symbolic “forty days and forty nights.” In the story of Noah and the ark, it rained forty days and forty nights; when Moses went up onto the mountain, he was there forty days and forty nights; when Jesus went out into the wilderness, he fasted forty days and forty nights.

Meanwhile, Anna was lamenting the absence of her husband and the lack of a child from their marriage. But eventually she dressed herself well and went into a garden, sat under a laurel tree, and prayed for a child.

Suddenly an angel appeared and said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth; and your child shall be spoken of in all the world.

Anna remarked that were that to happen, she would bring the child as a gift to the Lord.

And then there were two angels, telling Anna that her husband Joachim was on the way back with his flocks.

Joachim was coming back because an angel had appeared to him too, saying “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down away; for behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.”

If you look at the icon above, at upper right we see the angel appearing to Anna, and at upper left the angel appearing to Joachim.

The story continues that Joachim came back bringing quite a number of lambs and calves and goats, some as an offering to God (read “sacrifice” — this was in the days of animal sacrifice) and others for the priests, elders, and people.

And now we get to the main scene on the icon:

And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow [is] no longer a widow, and I the [one who is] childless shall conceive.

So that is the story behind the Zachatie, the Meeting of Joachim and Anna. In the Western version known as The Golden Legend (of Jacobus Voragine) the angel tells Anna to go and meet the returning Joachim at the “Gate called Golden” in Jerusalem.

All of this material is leading, of course, up to the story of the birth and childhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, and daughter of Joachim and Anna according to the Protoevangelion, but that is represented in other icons.

For today I will just add that if the title of Mary in icons –“Birthgiver of God” or “Mother of God” strikes you as a bit strange, her mother Anna (St. Anne in the West) is given one that sounds even stranger — “Grandmother of God.” There was controversy over giving Mary the “Mother of God” title in early Christianity, but those in favor of it won out in the 5th century (431), and those against it suddenly became “heretics” as a result.

The scene as depicted in this particular icon always strikes me as unintentionally amusing, because if you look closely, you will notice that the painter has placed Joachim so that he appears to be standing on Anna’s right foot.


In a previous posting, I touched briefly on the interesting icon type known as Sophia, Wisdom of God. Here is one rendering:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

It depicts a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.  That angel is Sophia, Wisdom of God.  It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom.  If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus.  But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom.  You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) on the other, is a variant of the “Deisis” type (the other two approaching figures are “Holy Apostle John the Theologian” at left and John Chrysostom at right). The starry bands at top represent heaven, in which sits “Lord Savaof” (Sabaoth), God the Father depicted as an old man. This rendering varies from the norm in that the painter has placed the seven pillars in the background, instead of depicting them as five small uprights supporting the throne. This “enthroned angel” image of Sophia, Wisdom of God is known as the “Novgorod” type, because it first appeared in the northern trading city of Novgorod in the 15th century. It is also the most commonly-seen image of Sophia.

There is, however, another and rather more complex “Sophia, Wisdom of God” type, the so-called “Kiev” Sophia. It is a slightly variable type, but the description given here should take you far in understanding and recognizing it. It is noteworthy that the “Kiev” type is customarily painted in the Westerized manner that began to be adopted in Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century.

Here is the Sophia, Wisdom of God “Kievskaya”:

The “Kiev” type is noted for its groups of sevens, though some versions of the image skimp on these, using fewer elements. But here is what the full type generally comprises:

Like the “Novgorod” image, it has its basis in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs in the Septuagint version, which gives us the first “seven.”


The image depicts a circular temple, and around the base of its dome is written Proverbs 9:1 in Greek:


Here it is in mixed case:

Η σοφια ωκοδομησεν εαυτη οικον και υπηρεισεν στυλους επτα (unaccented)
Η σοφία ᾠκοδόμησεν ἑαυτῇ οἶκον καὶ ὑπήρεισε στύλους ἑπτά (accented)
He Sophia okodomesen heaute oikon kai hypereise stylous hepta (transliteration, old style)

It is also generally written around the dome base in its Church Slavic version:

Premudrost sozda sebe dom/ i utverdi stolpov sedm

Both mean: Wisdom (Premudrost) has built (sozda) herself (sebe) a house (dom)/temple (khram) and (i) set up (utverdi) pillars (stolpov ) seven (sedm). Some texts use dom’ (ДОМЪ; house) while others use Khram’ (ХРАМЪ; temple).

At the top is Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) represented as a bearded old man, often with a triangular halo (a late adoption into Orthodox iconography) signifying the Trinity; He is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and his breath extends to the central image of Mary. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father, but in Roman Catholicism from the Father and the Son. This (the so-called Filioque (“…and from the Son”) was an issue of contention in the schism that finally separated the two segments of Christianity in the mutual cursings (anathemas) and excommunications the two divisions laid on one another in 1054.


They are shown with their symbols, which may vary from icon to icon:
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a vessel of medicaments, Gabriel with a blossoming lily, Selaphiel with hands crossed in prayer, Yegudiel with a crown (in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers (roses) on a white cloth.


Depicted on the seven pillars are noted items mentioned in sevens from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation); and depicted with accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, the latter coming from Isaiah 11:2-3:

“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God.”

In Church Slavic it reads (Russian font):

И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…

They usually are, from left to right:

1. A book with seven seals; (“The Gift of Wisdom”);
Revelation 5:5: “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

2. A seven-branched candlestick; (“The Gift of Understanding”);
Revelation 1:12: “And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks…

3. Seven eyes; (“The Gift of Counsel”);
Revelation 5:6: “...and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

4. Seven trumpets; (“The Gift of Strength”);
Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

5. A hand with seven stars (“The Gift of Knowledge”);
Revelation 1:16: “And he had in his right hand seven stars…

6. Seven golden vials; (“The Gift of Piety/Godliness”)
Revelation 15:7: “And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.”

7. Seven thunders; (The Gift of the Fear of God”).
Revelation 10:3; “…and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

In the center of the temple Mary stands on a crescent moon; twelve stars are in her halo, representing both the twelve apostles (New Testament) and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Old Testament); the image is taken from Revelation 12:1:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…

Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and her arms are outstretched in the ancient posture of prayer. It is the importance given to Mary in this image, as well as its usual classification among Marian icons, that has led to some confusion. Some mistake Mary for Wisdom, when traditionally Jesus, who is visually only a small part of this image, is Wisdom. In Roman Catholicism, Mary was looked on as being Wisdom, but this view was not the traditional view of Eastern Orthodoxy; however Catholicism — particularly from the latter part of the 17th century and in some respects even earlier — had an influence on Orthodox iconography, and Kiev was subject to that influence.

At Mary’s sides are seven Old Testament figures: Moses with the tablets of the Law, Aaron the first priest with a blossoming rod, King David with the Ark of the Covenant, the Prophet Isaiah with a scroll showing the text of Isaiah 7:14, beginning “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son…” (Се Дева во чреве приимет и родит СынаSe Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit Suina), the Prophet Jeremiah with a rod, the Prophet Ezekiel with closed doors, and the Prophet Daniel with the stone not cut by hands.

It is noteworthy that these figures are connected with what are considered in Eastern Orthodoxy prefigurations of Mary:

Moses, who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed, used as a prefiguration of Mary holding Jesus within her womb. But here he holds the tablets of the Law, and a scroll that says of Mary, Радуйся, скрижале Божия, на ней же перстом Отчим написася слово Божие — Raduisya, skrizhale Bozhiya, na nei zhe perstom Otchim napisasya slovo Bozhie — “Rejoice, Tablets of God, on which the finger of the father has written the Word of God.” Thus the Law tablets become the prefiguration of Mary as the “tablets” on which Jesus was written, i.e. was incarnated in Christian belief.

Aaron with his blossoming rod: Numbers 17:8: “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” This prefigures Mary giving birth to Jesus.

King David with the Ark of the Covenant: Mary is considered the Ark of the New Testament Covenant, containing Jesus as the Ark of the Old Testament contained the Law — the Old Covenant.

Isaiah 7:14 in Christian tradition is applied to the birth of Jesus from a virgin (though the Hebrew text of Isaiah merely says “young woman” and has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus).

Jeremiah with his rod of almond tree: Jeremiah 1:11: “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree.” This relates to the rod of Aaron.

Ezekiel with closed doors: Ezekiel 44:2: “Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” That is a symbol of the virgin birth and of Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine held by both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics).

Daniel with the uncut stone: Daniel 2:34 “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.” (Again, a symbol of virginity).


There are seven steps leading to the temple (which represents the Church, as well as Mary as the “house” of Jesus). From bottom to top they are:

1. Vera: Faith
2. Nadezhda; Hope
3. Liubov; Love
4. Chistota; Purity
5. Smirenie; Humility
6. Blagodat‘ Blessing/Grace
7. Slava; Glory


Look at this Russian icon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Even without the inscription, it is immediately identifiable to an informed student of icons, because the scene is so distinctive. Nonetheless, let’s look at the title inscription. Here it is in a modern Russian font:




Do not be concerned with little differences in spelling from example to example.

So, this icon depicts The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Martyred at the Sebaste Lake, or simply the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste” as they are commonly called. According to their story, the 4th century ruler Licinius wanted to rid his army of Christians. In Armenia, a military commander named Agricolaus was unhappy with forty soldiers, all Christians, who refused to sacrifice to the Gods. This was a major issue in those days, because refusal to sacrifice not only made Romans think the Christians were atheists, but also that they were revolutionaries, because traditionally it was the Gods who were the support of the State.

As punishment, the forty soldiers were led, in winter, out onto a frozen lake and made to remain there through the night unless they gave in and made the appropriate sacrifice. An inviting bathhouse was fired up on the shore with warm water. As the night proceeded, one soldier could not take the intense cold any longer, so decided to make the sacrifice, and went to the bathhouse. According to tradition, he fell down dead as soon as he stepped through the entrance.

Later in the night the soldiers still suffering on the icy lake supposedly had a vision. There was a light from heaven, and the water of the lake suddenly turned warm and melted the ice.

All guards were asleep except for one, who looked out on the lake and saw 39 crowns appear in the sky over the heads of the martyrs. He woke up the other guards and told them that he had decided to become a Christian, and he then went into the lake with the other martyrs.

When morning came and the martyrs in the lake were found still alive, they were taken from the lake, their legs were broken, and then they were piled onto a cart and taken away and burned.

Of course this is just a brief summary, and there are many more of the typical frills in the full story that one finds in the accounts of saints. Such elaborations make it very difficult to determine what in such tales may have an historical basis and what is just the fantasizing of the hagiographers (those who write stories of saints). As I have written in previous postings, some saints are entirely fictional, and some lives are a mixture of history and fiction in varying ratio and percentage.

As for this particular icon, it is painted in the old style maintained by the Old Believers (in opposition to the Westernized style adopted by the State Church). Usually one finds the forty martyrs in white trousers, but here the painter has added a bit of visual interest by giving some of the “undies” pastel colors.

We can see the soldier who gave up and went into the bathouse on the left, and we see the guard kneeling in the foreground who has decided to become a Christian and join the martyrs. In the clouds above, Jesus blesses them and sends down the crowns of martyrdom.

The building at left and the hills at right are typical of the traditional scenery of icons. In Russia such a building is called a “palace,” so the backgrounds of icons are commonly “hills and palaces,” or as we would say, “hills and buildings.” And of course both are stylized.

Here is a detail to show you how hills were painted in the traditional manner as it had developed by the 19th century:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

One can easily see that first a hill is painted in its base color, then the “steps” of the hill are formed by overpainting in the same color lightened with white, and finished with white highlights.

The lake water is indicated by simply painting swirling, concentric, thin white lines over the darker background color. And the clouds are formed in the snail-like fashion typical of the Old Believer painters in the region of the “three villages,” Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui.